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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 36.84%
Average: 5.26%
Pretty Bad: 15.79%
Total Crap: 0%

2 reviews, 7 user ratings

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Border, The
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by Jack Sommersby

"Great Nicholson; Good Movie"
4 stars

It's disappointing that the movie didn't do a whole lot better at the U.S. box office, but it's still more than worthy of rediscovery on home video.

Jack Nicholson gives his finest performance as Charlie Smith, a conscience-laden Border Patrol officer knee-deep in departmental corruption and moral ambiguity in The Border, a flawed but consistently-interesting motion picture that manages to entertain despite copping out at the end. Charlie is a perfectly identifiable Everyman: middle-aged with thinning hair and a paunch, married for a long time to a woman he's grown more to tolerate than passionately love, stuck in a dreary job as an officer for the U.S. Immigration Service in Los Angeles, living a nondescript life in an equally-nondescript mobile home. He doesn't really have any friends outside of the office; his evenings are spent with his ditsy, do-nothing wife Marcy (Valerie Perrine) who's as terrible about cleaning their home as she is with cooking a simple meal -- she's big on serving up TV dinners. And he absolutely detests his ineffectual job, making rounds of the clothing factories that employ nothing but illegals and busting just enough of them to meet a quota -- he's never required to actually bust the scuzzy owners who exploit them and pay them a meager six bucks a day. From his very first scene, Nicholson masterfully gets us on his side, allowing us to sense Charlie's frustration through both verbal and physical acting: when he walks up the stairs to a factory, it's with the burnt-out demeanor of going to the bathroom for a pee; and when he singles out a couple of illegals for arrest and reads them their rights, he might as well be reading off a grocery list. It's not easy expressively conveying world-weary inexpressiveness, but Nicholson, who can sometimes get out of hand when not handled right (with Going South and The Shining prime examples), is completely in character from the get-go and stays within the proper parameters. Every gesture, every vocal inflection, everything he does feels exactly in-synch -- he's got such an ironclad grasp of this man so early on that we can sit back and take pleasure in knowing that we're in the hands of a phenomenal actor who knows exactly what he's doing for the good of the overall movie rather than as a springboard for a self-involved acting exercise. (Nicholson also brought something like this off twelve years prior as another dissatisfied Everyman with his unforgettable, wasting-his-life-away Bobby Dupea in Five Easy Pieces.) And it takes guts for an actor of Nicholson's caliber to play someone who isn't particularly bright and distinctive. We get the feeling that Charlie never went to college and has never come close to setting the world on fire, but this doesn't necessarily equate him with a simpleton -- it's just that he's accepted his limitations and is perfectly content to try to appreciate the basics pleasures of life. That's why he's contemplating going back as an officer for the Parks and Recreation Service (he reminisces how he enjoyed feeding the ducks), but Marcie counters that it's a dead end, that there's no real future in it.

Besides, Marcy has something else in mind. Her high-school friend Savannah (Shannon Wilcox) has sent her a brochure from El Paso of a fancy duplex she lives in with her Border Patrol husband Cat (Harvey Keitel) that she wants Marcy and Charlie to move into right next door. Charlie initially objects, citing their lack of savings and his having no desire to live in El Paso; but being a good husband who wants to please his wife, he agrees and soon they're driving to Texas. Charlie gets on with the Border Patrol for just as meager pay as he was earning before, and it doesn't take long before Marcy is running them deep into debt, opening up charge accounts and buying expensive furniture, a waterbed and a pool, all the while Charlie is finding out his new job is just as futile as the other. The department is understaffed and underfunded with a huge turnover rate, and some of the "day worker" illegals have little problem sneaking over to the other side through tunnels and coming back in the evening; and for those wanting to migrate to the United States for good, there are "coyotes" who smuggle them over where they fetch over five-hundreds dollars a head to shady business owners. So it's not too surprising that a good deal of the officers are on the take, in cahoots with the smugglers who pay them well to look the other way. Cat, who's the second-in-command in the department and Charlie's new partner, initially offers him a chance to come in with him, but Charlie instinctively refuses and this causes some friction; but with the bills pouring in from Marcy's ever-bountiful spending (she insists they don't have to pay for any of the stuff because she's charging it -- a humorous jab at American consumerism and materialism, this), he relents and is soon with more money in his pocket but his sense of decency steadily eroding, especially when the minor infractions eventually give way to murder (Cat sees nothing wrong with executing an independent smuggler whose increased action can start chipping away at their financial end). In a subplot, there's the young Mexican woman Maria (Elpidia Carrillo) with a baby and younger brother who've been displaced from their small Mexican town by an earthquake; they're trying to make it over the border but have been stopped by Charlie's team. Charlie gradually grows to sympathize with her plight, especially after her baby has been stolen from a police holding area by a scummy black marketeer who sells children to wealthy American couples. Miserable and filled with self-disgust, Charlie takes it upon himself to get her baby back, and her and her family over into the United States because he wants to "feel good about something." This inevitably puts him at dangerous odds with Cat and the others who feel Charlie's going soft and may turn on them, and soon they're setting him up to take quite the perilous fall.

The Border has a serious subject, and for its first three-fourths it treats this both intelligently and unsparingly. Perhaps the storyline is a bit too schematic in its crosscutting of Charlie's and Maria's plights, and the screenwriters and the English director, Tony Richardson, in contrasting the idyllic suburbs with the dirty, tin-roofed abodes of a downtrodden Mexican community, paint in broad rather than incisive strokes, but by and large the texture and milieu are spot-on. It helps that there's a good deal of humor thrown into the proceedings, as well. Richardson, making his American debut, has an uncanniness for both psychological and physical detail: he's able to make something of an indictment against the morals some are willing to sell out for the solipsistic sake of the American Dream without ever going didactic on us (Marcy tries justifying her insatiable spending appetite on her supposed quest to make Charlie a "dream home" even though an ever-frustrated Charlie keeps having to tell her they can't afford it, and no more means no more); and he amusingly shoots a backyard pool-party scene with the proper amount of satirical exaggeration where the women are absurdly dressed up and the husbands are decked out in loud Hawaiian shirts for the occasion with poor Charlie frustratingly sweating over a grill while wearing an apron that you know he wants to tear off and burn right along with the shish kabob. I think what the moviemakers are getting at here is that some Americans, like Charlie's associates, who've attained that "dream" have sullied it with gross excess, while the Mexicans willing to risk their lives to illegally cross over are more appreciative of the basic opportunities that America can afford them. It may be a bit of an oversimplification, but it's not an all-together negligent one -- to keep themselves and their families in a lifestyle they think they deserve yet aren't exactly entitled to given the illegal means they partake in achieving it, the corrupt officers aren't on any a higher moral plane than pervasive tax-cheats and money launderers; they've convinced themselves they're doing it for their families yet willingly overlook the glaring contradiction that this constitutes anything resembling "family values." But the movie also makes some relevant points that many government law-enforcers are asked to do some of the dirtiest work for the lowest wages even if it's "clean" money; and that if the government isn't really serious about border security -- that they're willing to cater to the interests of businesses that have managed to thrive on "wet labor" -- that it's not entirely unexpected and more than understandable when pauper-paid law-enforcement personnel are motivated to look the other way for their own financial gain. (We're intended to empathize, not sympathize). They're still not left off the hook, though -- rather than the entire Border Patrol department on the take, there are some officers who have chosen to stay clean. When the corrupt chief explains an intercepted shipment's been compromised by them, there's a bit of admiration in his voice, conveying that they're what we used to be; he, too, lays his corruption off on financial family obligations.

The interworking details of the border-patrol operations and procedures are fascinating, and also depressing in that, for all the lack of funding and corruption, it's mostly akin to putting a Band-Aid on gangrene. Rather than working in a crowded command post, the corrupt officers enjoy the advantage of working out in wide open spaces with only the illegals as witnesses to their misdoings. And these aren't the dreamy, lush desert vistas right out of a David Lean epic. The cinematographer, Ric Waite, working excellent wonders with Panavision widescreen, captures the visual shimmering of heat that dominates these barren wastelands with an oppressiveness that clings; it's a fine metaphor for the all-encompassing corruption compromising the officers who are tergiversating out of downright torpor for their sworn duty -- the pervasive squalor of it all gets deep under your skin, and you find yourself unable to shake it off. Charlie's a sitting duck because he's willingly implicated himself in criminality and because he doesn't know the lay of the desert terrain like Cat. When Charlie blows his stack over Cat having killed that small-time smuggler and makes damn clear that he isn't in this for murder, Cat slyly sets him up with an abandoned vehicle Charlie knows was empty before returning to the station but which Cat has planted a dead body; professing his innocence, Cat tells him he'll cover for him only if he gets his head on straight and toes the line and doesn't make any more waves. As Cat, Harvey Keitel is considerably shorter than Nicholson but is so laser-focused and concentrated that he manages to make a believable intimidator, so when Charlie yells at the indignation of Cat's murdering ways (which is probably the best scene Nichsolson's ever played: it's as if Charlie's pained soul were opened up like a raw nerve), Cat's able to keep his cool without ever giving Charlie an inch of slack. And the other supporting characters are also well-drawn, with Jeff Morris, as a rotten-toothed smuggler, and Mike Gomez, as Cat's across-the-border snitch, practically oozing subterranean slime. Also praiseworthy are Warren Oates as the chief, and Perrine and Wilcox as the spoiled-to-the-hilt wives. The movie errs, though, with a tacky action-sequence conclusion with speeding vehicles and explosions that is not only abysmally staged but is in complete contradiction of all the well-etched realism proceeding it. It's hard to believe this was what the moviemakers originally intended, because it's so facile and out of place that you swear the projectionist switched the reels of a sudden; it's a blatant mainstream commercial ending that sticks out like someone in a clown suit at a funeral. Everything's resolved way too neatly, and you're brought up short by the egregious abruptness. It's almost as if the cast and crew, tired of working on location in El Paso, had simply had enough and gave one more shooting day before hightailing it back to Rodeo Drive. This isn't nearly enough to seriously damage The Border because so much of it is so good, but it does leave quite the sour aftertaste that five straight shots of even the highest-grade Mexican tequila couldn't manage to dissipate.

After years of suffering with an absymally-cropped VHS tape, having it available in 2.35:1 widescreen on DVD is nothing short of a revelation.

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originally posted: 05/22/11 04:48:53
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User Comments

9/02/15 Jon Nicholson, Keitel, Oates and the film is deadly dull and wooden? Yes! 2 stars
7/21/14 KAlexander It can be a little slow 3 stars
4/30/13 D Anderson Realistic portrayl of a man that thinks for himself and eventually does the right thing. It 5 stars
1/28/12 D.H. An excellent, serious minded film. 5 stars
4/15/07 Sommersby Nicholson gives a career-best performance in this flawed but colorful tale. 4 stars
9/04/04 T.B. It boring 2 stars
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  12-Feb-1982 (R)
  DVD: 11-May-2004



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